DISASTER relief has become a hot entry among political issues currently up for debate in the wake of Hurricane Andrew, and now Hawaii's Hurricane Iniki. The federal government has plunged in, deploying United States military personnel and equipment. Media coverage has matched that of the Desert Storm war last year. Yet, in all this activity, long shadows are being cast against the nation's future.
After Andrew, much partisan criticism was aimed at the recovery efforts. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has come under harsh attack, which has become typical of the period following floods, earthquakes, and hurricanes. This is not surprising in view of the human suffering involved, but some critics have gone so far as to push for the abolition of the agency.
Changes are needed. But first there needs to be a clear understanding of the changing role of federal emergency preparedness in the aftermath of the cold war. What is the context for future national and international security needs?
The long-time predecessor of FEMA was the Office of Emergency Preparedness (OEP). Situated in the White House, it had a voice in the National Security Council. At that time this office had a parallel and ambiguous responsibility for war-time civil defense with the Pentagon, where this concern was given low priority.
Into the 1970s, emergency preparedness was concerned with the contingency of war, particularly nuclear war. But the OEP was sporadically utilized for other things, even for managing price controls. Natural disasters requiring emergency relief were dealt with on an ad hoc basis. That mission was a neglected step-child.
During the Carter administration, a committee within the Office of Management and Budget developed an enlightened and bipartisan plan for combining all aspects of emergency preparedness for disasters - whether wartime, man-made, or natural - into one agency. The idea was to correlate the amazingly inconsistent and incomplete emergency planning of all federal agencies and state governments. The result was FEMA, a "Level II" organization, just under Cabinet status, reporting nominally to the president.
Despite critics, in the ensuing years the bipartisan character of FEMA's mission was maintained and its expertise gradually enhanced through three Republican administrations.
Over the years, however, political appointments increased and bickering repeatedly occurred because of state governments' displeasure with FEMA's allocation of federal relief funds. FEMA's budgets were felt by its supporters to be skimpy in relation to its enormous mission, and the agency became virtually ignored by the White House.
The cold war national security interest of the earlier OEP continued in FEMA, though it was largely frustrated. National security was focused by advisers to the agency and some staff on these key aspects: industrial mobilization issues, continuity of government in war-time, counter-terrorist capability, and civil defense. But the nuclear balance of terror - the prospect, however slight, of wholesale devastation in nuclear war - rendered such measures as mobilization and protecting the population from bom bing, reminiscent of World War II, of negligible funding importance.
Nonetheless, FEMA still made good sense. Its external advisers and its internal planners kept international risks in mind. Also, the case for equivalency, not duplication, of preparedness measures for all kinds of disasters, peace-time and war-time, became increasingly recognized. As for hurricanes, earthquakes, and power breakdowns, FEMA became gradually more professional in working through its regional offices and counterpart departments in each state government.
Then came the end of the cold war and drastic alteration, still under way, of perceptions of American security and military needs. Anxieties relaxed, and the public presumed that the old war-preparedness requirements were extinguished. As natural disasters inexorably recurred in recent years, FEMA got headlines and criticisms about its management.
Clearly, however, FEMA's mission and its professional role must survive. Further sophistication of its relations with state governments and with other federal agencies is required. As for proximity to White House authority, the critics are wrong. FEMA is at the apex already, and its weakness is not a consequence of lack of access, but of political neglect at the top.
To abolish the agency, in the frenzy of politics, would be to unlearn past lessons of public policy and ignore an overarching, residual, ominous set of crisis needs.
The federal government must not, for example, write off man-made nuclear or other quasi-military threats from terrorism. Just as during the cold war, mass euphoria and wishful thinking would hold that such horror, being unthinkable, is impossible.
Preparation for such a threat must involve FEMA and probably some new alignment of other agencies, including the Department of Defense.
The vulnerability of US power grids, air transportation, and telecommunication systems is grievous. A new century of multipolar power and global interdependency will call for ever more attention to domestic vulnerability to man-made disasters. It also will call for supportive intervention in man-made disasters overseas. The role of the military at this time in Florida is likely a preface to the kind of activities that American forces should prepare for, where the distinction between war and peace will be
blurred or confused. Sarajevo may prove more an antecedent of future international conflict than Desert Storm.
Most urgently, the threat of human devastation by weapons is a contingency that can't be ignored. In the bipolar age we were protected from mutual nuclear annihilation by a finely tuned set of military capabilities. The probability of their use was near zero.
Today, without the fearsome nuclear balance, international misadventure and irresponsible acquisition and use of nuclear or chemical-biological weapons are more likely. National emergency preparedness has a vital mission. We may no longer fear a weapons holocaust, but we should urgently take account of the possibility that just a few megatons, in the hands of just a few cunning terrorists, could kill a few million Americans.